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Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls calls Half Broke Horses a “true-life novel” because although she based it on the life of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, she tells the story in first person (re-creating Lily’s voice) and she also imagined details to fill in the gaps of the real story.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, Walls says, “My grandmother was quite a character.” She is indeed. Her voice jumps off every page as we follow her through the adventures of her childhood, youth, and middle age in the American southwest in the first half of the twentieth century. The opening chapter tells of how Lily, 10 years old, saves herself and her siblings when they get caught in a flash flood on their family’s homestead in Texas. Lily is integral to the success of the family’s fortunes: from the age of five, she has been helping her physically disabled father to train carriage horses.

When the family moves to New Mexico, Lily is allowed to attend a Catholic boarding school, which she loves. However, after just half a year, her father fails to pay the tuition and she has to go home. She discovers that her father has used the tuition money to buy four Great Danes from Sweden. Lily is furious, but has to accept the situation. Drawing on her Catholic faith, she looks for the door that God is said to open when he closes a window, and jumps at the chance to take a test to become a teacher. She passes, and at the age of 15, rides her horse 500 miles through New Mexico into Arizona, to teach in a one-room schoolhouse. Because of World War I, teachers are in short supply.

From this point on, Lily supports herself, visiting her family only occasionally. When her first job ends with the end of the war, Lily decides to seek her fortune in Chicago. I loved tagging along on the ride of Lily’s life. Although the way is sometimes bumpy, she doesn’t let it stop her from pursuing her goals, whether learning to drive an automobile, finishing her education, taking flying lessons, or figuring out how to make ends meet during the Great Depression. As the title suggests, Lily’s life is half-way between the freedom and danger of being wild, and the safety, rules and strictures of civilization.

Lily, a born teacher, tells the stories of her life to her daughter Rosemary, in the hopes that Rosemary will learn from them. Rosemary, in turn, tells these stories to her daughter—Jeannette Walls. Although Lily died when Jeannette was only eight, her memory and stories remained in the family, and now, thanks to the sure-footed writing of Jeannette Walls, we can all benefit from spending time with the determined, energetic, resourceful, and big-hearted Lily Casey Smith.

Great Maria, by Cecelia Holland

Great Maria, by Cecelia Holland

Cecelia Holland is a well-known writer of historical fiction, whose novels often features male protagonists. Great Maria is one of the few with a female lead character—and what a character she is.

The novel takes place in a fictionalized Sicily (the island off the “toe” of present-day Italy) in the 1000’s, during the time the Normans (of French heritage) were fighting the Saracens (Muslims) for dominance. I believe the place names Holland includes are made up, since I could not find them on any map of that region and era. It is therefore somewhat difficult to picture where the action takes place, although Holland’s descriptions are helpful. This article includes helpful background about medieval Sicily.

Maria is the only child of Robert Strongarm, a Norman baron. She has been managing her father’s household very competently since she was a young teen. She is convinced by her father to marry Richard, one of his knights. Richard and Maria have a stormy love-hate relationship. Although Richard comes to appreciate her management skills and hard work, he also wants her to be more compliant to his commands. Maria, however, has a mind of her own and puts it to use.

The story follows many years of Maria’s life in chronological order from the time she is 14. In the first chapter, Richard states as his reason for marrying Maria: “This castle’s at the throat of the whole region. . . . Someone is going to make himself great here, why should it not be me?” The overall plot is about Richard’s conquests, but that is in the background—the focus is on developing Maria as a character. The action really picks up when Richard assigns Maria, along with a small band of aged knights, to defend his newly acquired castle in Birnia while he and his brothers try to overthrow the Saracens in a different region.

Maria is a many-faceted woman and a strategic leader. She is a devout Catholic who uses plunder given to her by Richard to construct a chapel. She has a tender heart: she is actively involved in caring for her children, and does her best to help the peasants. Yet she feels no pity for those who are disloyal. She spies on her husband when she believes he is not being forthcoming with her. She takes counsel from her advisers but makes up her own mind. She bluffs her way out of dangerous situations.

Holland uses short, dense sentences which often combine setting, characterization, and action. This is how the novel begins:

Other pilgrims offered silver at the shrine; Maria brought an armful of wildflowers. She laid the vivid little blue blossoms down at the foot of the Virgin and smiled into the statue’s face. In the gloom of the cave, her flowers were the only color. Kneeling, she began the prayers she had come here to say. She asked for the rescue of the Holy Sepulcher from the Saracens, and for her father’s good health and salvation, and for her own call into the holy life. The raw stone floor was damp and uneven beneath her knees. The air lay icy against her cheeks.

In addition to Maria, the other main and secondary characters are also well-developed and vivid. I grew to care about the fate of those whom Maria cared about, and to dislike those whom Maria disliked.

I do wish Holland had included more of Maria’s inner thoughts. It was sometimes difficult to know how Maria felt about the tumultuous incidents around her, and sometimes I didn’t understand why she was taking certain actions. Yet perhaps this was by design: Maria likes to act, and is not terribly introspective. She is an unusual, memorable character.

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier

I first read Remarkable Creatures several years ago while researching books for a blog post on Women Scientists in Novels. It features two women fossil hunters in the small English seaside town of Lyme Regis in the early 1800’s. When I read it again to prepare this review, I enjoyed it all over again.

The novel is based on two real women fossil hunters: Mary Anning (a working-class woman who discovered complete skeletons of ichthyosaurus, plesiosaurus, and other ancient animals) and Elizabeth Philpot (an upper-class woman who is known for her collection of fossil fish). Chevalier used their real friendship as a basis of her story, including actual details such as the fact that Mary survived a lightning strike as a baby. The story is told in alternating chapters from the first-person points of view of Mary and Elizabeth.

After the death of her father, 11-year-old Mary and her family struggle to make a living by finding and selling “curies” (fossils, which were called “curiosities”) to tourists. Mary is especially good at spotting fossils. Elizabeth, a grown woman, moves with her sisters to Lyme Regis from London in order to live within the means of their inheritance, and she develops an interest in the fossils littering the beach. Despite the difference in age and social class, the two become close friends based on their shared interest in fossils. The novel follows them for several years, as Mary grows up and Elizabeth grows older.

Conflicts arise around religion (is the universe much older than the Bible suggests?); gender roles (men collectors often buy from Mary and then pass off the skeletons and fossils as their own); marriage vs. spinsterhood (Mary falls in love with an upper-class collector and hopes to avoid the stigma of being a spinster like Elizabeth); and science (are Mary’s bizarre skeletons truly creatures from another era, or are they hoaxes?).

Chevalier does a great job of evoking the small, hilly town of Lyme Regis and its fossil-strewn cliffs and beaches. Here is Elizabeth’s first description of the beach where she will spend so much time:

It is as if there are two villages side by side, connected by a small sandy beach, where the bathing machines are lined up, awaiting an influx of visitors. The other Lyme, at the west end of the beach, doesn’t shun, but embraces the sea. It is dominated by the Cobb, a long gray stone wall that curves like a finger out into the water and shelters the shore, creating a tranquil harbor for the fishing boats and trading ships that come from all over. The Cobb is several feet high, and wide enough for three to walk along arm in arm, which many visitors do, for it gives a fine view back to the town and the dramatic shoreline beyond of rolling hills and cliffs in green, gray, and brown. (p. 13)

Chevalier used real names throughout the book, and this caused me some confusion, because many of the men have names that start with “B” (Bullock, Birch, Buckland) and I had trouble keeping them apart.

Remarkable Creatures would be a good companion read to Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which takes place in the same time period, and one section of which is set in Lyme Regis. I love Jane Austen’s novels. However, it is certainly refreshing to read about women of that era who are not fixated on marriage, but are devoted to their own interests and their own work.